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Face Masks 101 – The Basics

It’s been around four months since the coronavirus reportedly emerged in a Chinese food market in Wuhan. This strain of the coronavirus has spread rapidly throughout the world, sweeping masses into its disastrous consequences.

The health effects may be mild or severe, depending on your immunity and health. But that’s an entirely different and lengthy discussion of its own. Here, the main question is: Are face masks good for preventing the transmission of coronavirus? How effective is a face mask when you practice social distancing? In a nutshell, do face masks really work? 

Here’s all you need to know about face masks and protection during the ongoing pandemic:

Are face masks good?

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Face masks, which previously had little significance in the life of ordinary people, have suddenly gained worth globally. Their demand has gone through the roof, and in some cases, their price right along with it. The media, government agencies, and public health officials have worked hard to normalize the wearing of masks. However, much of the public is still trying to understand what mask-wearing actually accomplishes.

When should you wear a mask?

As of now, there is no definite or complete answer to this question. The benefits of a face mask mainly depend on who’s wearing it. Below is a brief breakdown of the usability of a face mask for different wearers:

People at home

For a large portion of the public, isolation is a sufficient measure. A face mask isn’t necessary while you’re healthy at home. According to the American CDCWorld Health Organization (WHO) and other public health institutes, maintaining vigilant hygiene is enough to keep you safe. However, you can wear a mask if you’re going out or are in contact with a sick person.

The elderly

People aged over 65 are more likely to face deadly consequences of the virus. They should wear a mask as a precaution whenever there’s any outdoor social contact. These people are the most vulnerable right now, but a mask can certainly decrease the threat of catching the virus.

People who go outside

Going outside for any purpose means that you’re exposing yourself to many evident or asymptomatic coronavirus carriers. Therefore, the majority of health experts recommend wearing surgical masks or cloth coverings to minimize the likelihood of catching or spreading the virus. Any type of face-covering is better than no covering at all, but surgical masks offer the best protection for the general public.

Sick people and potential virus carriers

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People who have any kind of respiratory infection should wear a face mask to protect others. If you are sneezing, coughing, or have flu, fever, and fatigue symptoms, try to minimize contact even within your home.

Similarly, those who are taking care of the patient should also wear masks while tending to them. They should avoid unnecessary physical proximity with the virus carrier. Discarding the mask after use and washing hands and face thoroughly are critical preventive measure.

Healthcare workers

Are face masks and gloves both necessary for healthcare workers? Yes, absolutely. Especially because, with a worldwide lockdown, industries have been forced to slow down the manufacturing and production of surgical masks.

There’s currently a consensus to maximize the production of N95 masks and PPEs to ensure the safety of frontline fighters. Citizens are urged to keep their hands off the protective masks, nitrile gloves, and PPEs. These are suitable only for law enforcers, paramedics, nurses, doctors, journalists, and other professionals who are managing communities during the pandemic.

Among healthcare workers, those who are in direct contact with coronavirus patients should use N95 masks. Administrative or communications staff can wear a surgical mask instead.

Do face masks really work?

There is an air of ambiguity regarding the usefulness of face masks. How efficient is a face mask in preventing coronavirus? 

To draw a comparison, the regular flu proves to be fatal for about < 1% of the infected population. On the other hand, the coronavirus is taking the lives of an average of 3.4% of its victims. Many of these have been infected even after wearing face masks. Lack of hygienic measures may be a contributing factor in some of these cases.

Yes, wearing a mask or face covering can curb the spread of the virus, but it isn’t fully equipped to protect you from all threats. Even after wearing a mask, you must wash your hands and face thoroughly to keep the virus away.

What about surgical gloves?

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Surgical nitrile gloves are perhaps the second most common protective equipment in the coronavirus pandemic. Like the common face coverings, surgical gloves aren’t as important if you haven’t caught a respiratory infection. You can wash your hands, avoid touching your face, and commonly touched surfaces for precautions.

What do face masks do?

After cycles of debate and misinformation, this clarification is quite necessary. With the absence of medicines and vaccines, face coverings and masks are probably the most reassuring medical practice right now. Whether you are a doctor, a patient, or simply a healthy quarantining individual, wearing a mask can benefit you. A standard face mask will prove to be useful in the following ways:

It is breathable

A face mask does not suffocate those who wear it. Unless you’re wearing it wrong or have tied it too tight, you shouldn’t have a problem with breathing freely.

It filters the air

A face mask is also responsible for filtering the air you’re inhaling. The fabric blocks large droplets from passing through. So even if you are breathing around a suspected patient or carrier of the virus, the chances of you catching the disease are lowered.

What are the different kinds of masks?

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Not every human on the planet needs to stockpile N95 masks. Why? Because they’re an unnecessary measure for most of us at this time. These are a scarce commodity and should be reserved for medics and frontline workers only. So how are surgical masks, cloth coverings, and N95 masks different from each other?

A cloth covering

Cloth masks and makeshift coverings are the best alternatives for those who are under quarantine. You can use two cotton fabric pieces and sew them together to make a reusable face mask. Public health institutions, media outlets, and bloggers alike are providing guidelines for making your own face mask at home.

A scarf or a bandana can also be used as a mask under strict emergency situations. However, these coverings cannot last long and aren’t safe for prolonged use. Currently, it’s much better to remain indoors and avoid going outside. You don’t need a mask if you are staying in.

Surgical masks

The face masks with a blue-green film on one side are typically known as surgical face masks. These are also useful in preventing infectious droplets from entering the body. They are the ones with a few stretchable folds and they can adjust according to the size of your face.

If you or anyone you know is facing any sort of respiratory condition, a surgical mask is ideal protective equipment. For sick people, the colored side of the mask should be placed outwards. This keeps the bacterial droplets from escaping into the atmosphere.

For those who are merely wearing the mask for precaution, the whiter side can face outwards. It keeps spray or saliva droplets from entering your mouth or nose. Over the years, studies have shown that surgical masks are effective in preventing viral exposure.

N95 masks

The ever-so-popular N95 masks definitely provide the highest levels of protection from the virus. What does an N95 mask do? Let’s find out from the name itself.

N

Like every other medical use face mask, this mask also belongs to the Respirator Rating Letter Class. The “N” stands for “not resistant to oil”, meaning that the mask should be kept away from oil particulates.

95

This number indicates the percentage of acceptable filter leakage. So, for the N95 mask that would be 95%. This is one of the highest percentages of protection that the current range of masks offer.

Any infiltration that’s a minimum of 0.3 microns in size cannot pass through the N95 mask barrier. Dust, mist, saliva splatter, aerosol, droplets, and fumes are all barred from entering the internal cavity. A valve is optional in N95 masks, but it’s a useful feature, too. This valve makes it easier for the exhaled air to escape outside. This makes the mask easy to wear for people who have breathing problems and may also help to keep the face cooler within the mask.

The reason why N95 masks are different from other masks is because of the way they are built. These aren’t woven by the hand or by machine. Instead, the fabric is an electrostatic non-woven polypropylene. This material is tightly bound together to prevent the passing of tiny particles.

Cloth covering, surgical masks, or N95 masks?

All three options offer some level of protection against coronavirus. The difference in their effectiveness is as follows:

Compared to a homemade mask, a surgical mask provides more protection from viral exposure. Makeshift arrangements such as bandanas are better suited for emergency purposes, or when there is a shortage of surgical masks.

Between surgical masks and N95 masks, the latter provides a higher degree of safety from exposure. N95 masks have fewer chances of filter penetration and face seal leakage. However, surgical masks are also safe if you are not in direct contact with a patient.

Overall, N95 masks are more effective in preventing viral exposure, leakages, and do not loosen easily. The N95 masks are better suited for healthcare workers who are in direct contact with coronavirus patients.

How to dispose of or reuse masks

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Not every mask is reusable. Nor is every mask meant for mere single time usage. The type of mask material and the way you have used it determines if it is safe to be worn again or not.

A cloth face mask or covering can be used more than once, provided you take the right measures. When you’re returning from an outdoor trip, take off the mask using gloves, tongs, or your fingers. Avoid touching your face or the front of the mask as you do so. Treat it as a biohazard and toss it straight into the washing machine. Washing masks and other possibly infected surfaces with an antibacterial and detergent is the next step. You can later iron and wear the mask again.

However, masks with a more serious usage, such as the surgical mask or N95 mask, should be disposed of immediately. These are prone to housing germs and pathogens so you shouldn’t wash them or reuse them.

Summing it up

Face masks are definitely a reassuring safety measure right now. A cloth covering can do quite well if you have no access to a more advanced face mask. But for long term general use, surgical masks are a much better choice. The N95 mask, though more protective than the other two, isn’t necessary under ordinary circumstances. If you are hygienic, notice health cautions, and keep your masks clean, there’s no need to fear the virus, particularly in your own home. For further assistance and emergency updates, stay connected to your local health officials.

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